TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Googling a privacy saga

Google's latest privacy policy has copped a lot of flak from lawmakers and the media but do users really care?

Technology Spectator

In a typical day, you probably leak around a spreadsheet's worth of data.

Just think about it. Have you caught public transport using a smartcard? Paid for anything with your credit card? Earned points on a rewards card? Browsed the internet? Or signed up for anything online?

All of these digital processes create numbers which companies are now using to improve their services or profile their customers. Why waste time trialing offers and products when you can accurately predict what people want through number crunching? It speeds up corporate innovation and aids a company and its customers in the process.

That's the argument Google has put forward in relation to its new privacy policy.

The search engine giant has combined all of its services under one privacy policy, creating a pool of data that will allow it to purportedly revolutionise internet searching.

But the thought of data collection on such a grand scale has created quite a bit of controversy.

Googling a privacy saga

The response from the lawmakers to the changes was immediate, with eight US lawmakers urging the US Federal Trade Commission to host an enquiry into the policy. That was followed by EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding publicly casting doubts on its legality.

The media has also run away with the story likening Google’s privacy policy to the next step in consumer spying and profiling.

Two media heavyweights, The New York Times and The Guardian have both contended that Google is a commercial entity, and their blunt mantra of "do no evil” is no longer enough to give them the freedom to cross reference user data.

This is the latest flashpoint in an ongoing debate about privacy and at some point we need to consider just how much we care about what companies know about us.

Australian privacy commissioner, Tim Pilgrim, says that we do care and we certainly draw a line on blatant exploitation of personal details.

"Personal information has become very valuable to the operation of many online businesses using it to target advertising and services,” Pilgrim says.

"We conducted a survey last year which clearly shows that people care about their online privacy, particularly when using social networking. Many people try to restrict access to their information.”

Pilgrim identified social media as the key area of concern in relation to internet privacy and yet social media is still flourishing.

A Facebook privacy paradox

Two years ago, Facebook was at the forefront of a privacy storm when it was revealed that certain Facebook apps, such as Farmville, were divulging personal information to other web and advertising companies.

Fast-forward two years and despite being labelled as a key cause of Facebook’s privacy leakage, Farmville has survived and flourished.

Its creator, Zynga, experienced exponential growth over that period despite privacy concerns continually lingering over Facebook.

Perhaps the reason why we don’t care about Facebook having our information is because we self-filter what content we put on the net.

You can’t do that with Google, because it’s a tool not a posting forum. The only way we can filter what we are looking for on the internet is to actively change our browsing habits.

Perhaps the public will react the same way to Google’s new policy as it did to Facebook’s privacy issues. By the company not actively posting our usage details, we may perceive no harm in proceeding to use the service normally.

Google reaffirms they "do no evil"

Peter Fleischer of Google’s Privacy Council recently replied to a letter from Tim Pilgrim, addressing his concerns on the web company’s new privacy policy.

In his letter, Fleischer reaffirms that Google is not selling any user’s identifiable personal information, not collecting any new data about users and still gives users the ability to control how the information is used for advertising through Google’s ad manager.

Fleischer also says that Google users have always been given the ability to pack up their data from the site and take it elsewhere.

But more to the point, nobody has openly noticed the difference between Google’s new and old privacy policies. And they probably wouldn’t if the internet giant didn’t flag it on its entire suite of internet tools and websites.

Google has taken to educating the wider public in order alleviate criticism of its new policy. It’s actively promoting its ad manager system which allows users to toggle whether ads are tailored to search result or not.

As the debate on privacy evolves, one central foundation remains the same: we seem happy to divulge information, just as long as we feel that the content we are providing won’t come back to hurt us in the long run.

As soon as we feel a tangible negative impact from our data leaking, then the privacy argument will move beyond idle commentary and users will take action.